Rain or shine, Joyce Yang thrills to a live performance (finally!) of Liszt with the Fresno Philharmonic

There’s something about this summer with Joyce Yang and thunderstorms.

Pictured above: Joyce Yang performs with the Fresno Philharmonic on Saturday, Sept. 11, and Sunday, Sept. 12. Photo: KT Kim

A few weeks ago, when Yang walked onto the stage at the famed Aspen Music Festival to play the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 — a selection she will perform with the Fresno Philharmonic live this weekend under the baton of music director Rei Hotoda — the sky decided to roar.

“We heard this very loud thunder,” she says.

The audience gasped. Yang, by now seated at the piano, turned and said, “That sounds ominous.”

Here’s the thing: The concert was being held outside under a tent. A very substantial tent, to be sure, but the structure is open at the sides. Sure enough, in a few minutes, when Yang was in the middle of the slow movement, the deluge started. The sound of the rain hitting the roof overwhelmed everything else. Water started blowing in sideways.


“No one could hear anything I was doing. At which time I finished my little solo, and I looked up, and the conductor was smiling at me and said, ‘OK, we’re done for now.’ ”

It was the first time she’d actually had a performance halted because of weather. After 15 minutes, or so, the rain let up, and the concert continued.

As we’re talking on the phone a few days before she flies to Fresno, I express my amazement at the story. And I say something like: “Well, you aren’t going to have to worry about thunderstorms here.” We both laugh.

And what happens on Thursday night — the day she arrives in Fresno for her first rehearsal with the orchestra?

Thunder, lightning and a burst of precipitation that makes roofs in the city sing with the sound of pounding water.

Just call her Joyce Yang, Rainmaker.

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The celebrated pianist — born in Korea, Van Cliburn competition silver medalist, Juilliard Artur Rubinstein winner — is no stranger to Fresno. She’s a favorite of Fresno Philharmonic audiences, and also a favorite interview for me. This is actually the third time I’ve interviewed her by phone. (The last time, in 2019, I wrote of the experience: “Yang comes across as whip-smart, slightly neurotic, hugely talented, self-driven, unselfconsciously funny and quintessentially nice.”)

But there’s something extra special this time around: Yang’s concert is the first live post-vaccination performance of the orchestra. Forced to cancel the second half of the 2019-20 season, the Fresno Philharmonic would go on to play its entire 2020-21 season virtually.

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Now, with strict COVID-19 protocols (masks and vaccinations or negative COVID-19 tests required) in place for the musicians and audience, the orchestra is venturing back into in-person territory. Along with Yang’s performance of the Liszt No. 1, the Fresno Philharmonic will perform George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony.

Going live is a major move, both musically and emotionally. People have gone far too long without the opportunity of live music. And that counts both audiences and musicians.

Yang started performing again in early July after her lengthy pandemic hiatus. During that time she was busier than you’d think. She learned all 24 Rachmaninoff concertos. She started a Patreon page to connect with her fans. She taught herself how to edit videos and offered a new 10-minute one each Monday morning about a different piano technique. She even gave virtual piano lessons — and found out that she really likes teaching.

“It turns out that once I started talking about music, I have a lot to say,” she says.

Oh, and she watched all the seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Pianists are people, too.

Now that she’s back performing live, many of her gigs have been at chamber music festivals, a normal summer occurrence. Being able to return to performing with orchestras has been extra special. Going back into real concert halls has been a profound experience.

“Everywhere I go, musicians feel that we can breathe again somehow. People are really excited to even come to early-morning rehearsals. There’s a happiness I really do feel from musicians being able to do what we do.”

That enthusiasm extends to audiences, she adds.

“I feel like people explode once the concert is over. I really do feel this extraordinary excitement. I feel, wow, I think they really enjoyed the concert, but I also think they were hungry for that.”

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Dramatic rainstorms, such as the one that interrupted Yang’s Aspen performance, are actually a good way to set the tone for the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, she says. The piece has a lot of jagged turns and surprises. Some of those turns are capricious, others are a little humorous. Liszt is known for his very difficult virtuosic writing. He puts some of the very hardest parts of his pieces at the beginning, as if to say: You’d better be ready.

The concerto has lots of “little solos” embedded all over the place, Yang says, and not just for the piano. Other instruments get their moments in the spotlight, too.

“For me it feels like a piano concerto plus musical theater plus opera all combined into one. It’s an incredible celebration of the piano. I feel like Liszt keeps you on your toes for musicians and listeners.”

At one point as we’re talking, I remind Yang that her Fresno concert marks a return to live music for the orchestra, and I’m surprised by her reaction. She almost sounds surprised — and honored. She already had her post-vaccine “debut,” and she’s forgotten that other people are still starved for musicians in real time, with all the spontaneity that such an occasion provides.

Even when rain can blow in the side.

“Now that I know it’s the first piece that people will hear live, I think it will be extra dramatic,” she says.

Thank goodness the Shaghoian has four walls.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Great story! Yes, Joyce is not only a marvelous musician, but amazingly fun to talk to 🙂


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